Looking back now, it’s hard to grasp just how much Utley’s life changed in an instant on that November day 20 years ago. In his third year out of Washington State, Utley was a starting guard for the Lions and blocking for one of the greatest running backs of all time in Barry Sanders.
Utley had a rock-star image as he was known for his long hair (he still has his trademark mullet to this day) that he sometimes bleached, wearing skull-and-crossbones earrings, riding a motorcycle and listening to heavy metal music.
The Lions were on their way to the franchise’s first playoff win since 1957 (still its only playoff win since then) when Utley, just 25 at the time and a hulking 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, broke his fifth, sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae while falling on his head in an attempt to take out the legs of a Los Angeles Rams defender.
Although he was able to form a “thumbs up” as he was carted off the field, Utley became a quadriplegic who at one point was read his last rites when doctors didn’t think he would survive two blood clots.
“I was history,” Utley recalled. “So I am thankful to God every single day that he gives me the ability.”
When a doctor told Utley he would never walk again, Utley told him to leave the room, incensed that someone would tell him what he could or could not do.
About a year after the injury, Utley started regaining movement in his hands and fingers, and in 1999 Utley stood up and moved his feet for the first time with the assistance of braces on his legs.
While he hasn’t achieved his goal of walking on his own yet, it hasn’t stopped Utley – a self-described “adrenaline junky” – from staying extremely active, whether he is handcycling, skiing, scuba diving or even skydiving.
Fit with his own custom automobile he’s able to lift himself into and drive, Utley takes immense pride in being able to operate on his own.
Now quickly approaching the 20th anniversary of the accident, Utley says he has no plans as of yet to be at Ford Field on Nov. 20 for the Lions’ home game vs. Carolina, although he is excitedly following Detroit’s surprising 3-0 start.
He’s certainly had a long time to think about all the things he’d like to do if he can walk again. Asked what would top his to-do list along with walking off Ford Field, Utley gives a poignant response that sums up what’s been deprived of him the last two decades and what the rest of us take for granted.
“People forget, it’s the small things,” Utley said. “(I’d like) to be able to walk with the wife on the beach. Something as small as that.”
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